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Monday, September 12, 2016

Feminism, now more than ever

Hillary Clinton is vilified as untrustworthy and unlikeable, and Phyllis Schlafly gets the last laugh. It makes me wonder what’s happened to feminism over the years. What explains the persistence of the idea that women are weak, unreliable creatures fit only for domestic life? Why do people — even women — so easily accept the narrative that a strong woman is bitchy and false? Why don’t people recognize the blatant sexism? Why do so many women see marginal improvements in our status as total victory, and then abandon the struggle? Did everyone just fall for the “You’ve come a long way baby” ads and the pseudo-women’s lib of “Sex and the City”?

Before I go any further, let me get one thing out of the way.

Victim blaming is deplorable. I’m starting with that because I know that, by the time I’m done, someone is going to call what I have to say victim blaming. No woman deserves to be the object of sexist ideas or actions, no matter how she chooses to live her life. Bigotry is the fault of the bigot.

But that doesn’t mean that women should be complacent. If we should learn anything from Phyllis Schlafly, it’s that all the gains women have made over the past few decades could evaporate in a heartbeat, because old-fashioned notions about women’s “proper” role are alive and well and waiting in the wings to make a comeback. And if the Trump candidacy teaches us anything, it’s that the embers of bigotry can be fanned into a roaring flame a lot more quickly and easily than we might think.

Challenging ourselves to buck expectations is not wrong. Putting conventional notions of femininity under a critical microscope is not self-hatred. Recognizing the toxic messages we’ve internalized since childhood is not victim blaming.

If anything, those are the ways we seize the agency we need to create change.

There’s a tendency nowadays to see old-school feminism, with its rejection of traditional femininity and its focus on the evils of objectification, as unpleasantly strident and even self-hating. Some look at the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which turned against a lot of the outward trappings of femininity, and ask, why do advocates for women seem to hate actual women? It’s a fair question. When anger and disapproval are aimed at things closely associated with womanhood itself, from bras and makeup to mothering and homemaking, people feel attacked. It becomes impossible to have a free and open discussion about choices and messaging. The sense that feminists are a small subset of women who hate most women is understandable. Utterly wrong, but understandable.

The problem is, how do you stand up against a widely accepted, oppressive, male-privileging definition of femininity without criticizing the outward manifestations of that definition and, by extension, the people who embrace them?

When we value how we look over what we know and what we do; when we police our own behavior to avoid seeming aggressive or unlikeable; when we accept the notion that we are delicate, fragile, and weak; when we project the idea that our bodies are tools for sexuality and little else; when we spend our precious time highlighting culturally privileged physical characteristics of whiteness, thinness, and youth — then we perpetuate what oppresses us. And that’s where the idea of victim blaming comes in. To say that women should be doing something differently in order to save themselves from a great evil sounds an awful lot like saying we are responsible for the great evil.

But in truth, those two things are worlds apart. When we lift ourselves up, we do it for ourselves. When we break out of the prison, it is to seize our freedom. It’s not the fault of the unjustly imprisoned that they have been imprisoned, whether they have the will to break free or not. Nevertheless, it’s the will to break free that will force change. And every little act of defiance breaks a link in the chain.

There is plenty of room for women of good faith to debate what constitutes an act of defiance. Is it refusing to support the “beauty” industry by eschewing its standards, or is it subverting that industry by taking control of it and broadening its standards? Is it taking control of our sexuality by being unabashedly sexual, or deemphasizing our sexuality in favor of traits we’ve long been denied the right to celebrate, like intelligence and strength? Is it succeeding in male-dominated fields, or elevating female-dominated ones? Are these either/or choices or false dichotomies? These are valid and important questions. The key is remembering that we all share the same goal in asking them: to change a system that prevents us from achieving the personal fulfillment that is every human being’s right.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Remembering My Spock

As my social media feeds fill up with posts about Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I find myself remembering Spock.

Not the original-series Spock. Not Leonard Nimoy. My Spock. A long time ago, when Star Trek and I were very young, I had a best friend. Her name was Rifka. I was Kirk, and she was Spock. That pretty much says it all.

Rifka and I fell in love with Star Trek when we were about 10 years old. It was the early 70s, a couple of years into Star Trek’s seemingly endless syndicated run on Channel 11 in New York. I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it, having been introduced to Star Trek by my older brother, but our passion for the show soon surpassed his. It surpassed that of everyone we knew.

The Star Trek universe was our universe, or at least, everything we wanted our universe to be: exciting, dangerous, just, beautiful, honorable. It was how we saw ourselves. Star Trek wasn’t just what we watched, it was what we did. For the next few years — long past the age either of us would have willingly admitted — Rifka and I spent most of our time together playing Star Trek. We played other things from time to time — the Hardy Boys, Lost in Space, board games — but at least 90% of our time together was spent playing Star Trek. And always, always, I was Kirk and Rifka was Spock. At school, there were others who joined our game. Scotty, Bones, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu were divided up among whoever else wanted to play. Interestingly, the one boy in our group, Arthur, always played the alien. (There’s probably a whole dissertation to be written about that, but I’ll just leave it there.) But Rifka and I were tyrannical in our control of the lead roles. She was Spock, I was Kirk. Always.

The funny thing is, I don’t think we had any clue just how accurately those roles reflected who we actually were.  I was brash, she was measured. I was smart, she was brilliant. I was impulsive, she was thoughtful. I was the tomboy, the risk taker, the girl who wanted to beat the boys at everything. Rifka was the hard worker who mastered everything to which she set her formidable intelligence. And in the world of our Jewish day school, my faith was showy but shallow, where hers was quiet but deeply spiritual.

As we moved into adolescence, the very things that had drawn us together began to drive us apart. In high school, I wanted to reinvent myself. I thought of  myself as a rebel, a rule breaker, a free spirit (though looking back, it was all rather tame and pretentious). Rifka remained cautious and studious. We were still friends, but we were no longer inseparable, complementary, flip sides of the same coin -- Kirk and Spock. As the years went on, we spoke less and less. By the time we went to each other’s weddings, we hadn’t seen each other in years.

And then, in 2002, some three decades after Rifka and I began playing Star Trek, word reached me that she was very ill. Rifka had cancer.

The news kicked me in the gut. All the stupid stuff that had ever come between us fell away, and the realization of all the time wasted, the friendship I should have cherished but instead allowed to wither, stood stark before me. So I did what I should have done years earlier: I wrote her a letter.

Rifka was a writer, too. By then, she was a columnist for the Jewish Week. This is what she wrote in June 2002 in a piece about the Beatles, another passion we shared (later published in an anthology of her work):

“Perhaps the only silver lining to having been diagnosed with cancer several months ago is that I have reconnected in unexpected ways with people from all walks of my life, but most particularly, with old, dear, and long out-of-touch friends.

“If I may quote from a recent letter from that same best friend who introduced me to the Beatles so long ago — and with whom I have not been in touch in years: ‘For me, talking to old friends has this kind of magical power to make me real — not just me, sitting here at this moment, but the me that’s been me all along, since the very beginning of me….Whatever else we may be today, the two little girls we were then are here with us now. They never left us.’”

A little more than a year later, I saw Rifka at her father’s shiva. He was a Holocaust survivor, a businessman, and a lovely human being, but the massive turnout at his shiva was not entirely for him. For so many of us, it was an opportunity to see Rifka without having to say what was readily apparent: one last time. In a stroke of luck, when I arrived at her brother’s house, I found that our alien friend, Arthur, whom I hadn’t seen since elementary school, was there as well. The three of us sat and talked for hours. Rifka was tired but still very much herself, her wit and insight as keen as ever. Her husband and children were there as well. As the other shiva callers came and went, I lingered, soaking her in, until finally I had to go home to my own young children.

Rifka died just a few weeks later at the age of 42. The injustice of it still makes me weep bitter tears. For my Spock, there was no Genesis planet, no katra, no miraculous resurrection. She lives on only in the memories of those who loved her.

I never think of Star Trek without thinking of my Spock. And when I say never, I mean never.

Last weekend, four decades after Rifka and I went to some of the earliest Star Trek conventions together, I attended the 50th anniversary Star Trek Mission convention in New York. As I entered, I saw this banner.

I stopped to look at it awhile, and yet again, I shed tears for my Spock, who did not live long enough to see this day. I miss her. I have been, and always shall be, her friend.